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Grant de Smidt interview for The Academy Conundrum

Joe Tweedie – what attributes, besides talent, determine whether Player X becomes the next Gaël Kakuta or the next Ousmane Dembélé?

GdS – Opportunity is key. But also, some luck in terms of their side having a gap for a player of their ilk.

Kakuta is the perfect example. Ancelotti used him a few times, once as a number 10 in the Champions League when he was using a midfield diamond. This is his ideal role. But then he switched to 433 and Kakuta was used wide right (Villa away) and struggled. This was largely bad luck. So, I guess versatility is a big factor to ensure plenty of minutes. Equally, the players’ ability has to tie in with the manager’s preferred positional profiles at that time too. Loftus-Cheek – I don’t think he’s a forward or inside left at all. But for Conte, he’s never going to play CM. Too lazy and tactically naïve.

Off the field stuff would be huge too, but things like training attitude, lifestyle etc. are obvious

JT – at what age do you feel a young player is ready for the rigours of first team football?

GdS – it depends hugely on playing style. A small player like McEachran was ready at like 17 due to his role. He was rarely involved in duels and so forth. But under a different manager, other attributes are valued. For example Pep might have liked Colkett but Mourinho prefers Loftus-Cheek for his size etc.

JT – in terms of developing players between the ages of 18-21, what is more beneficial? Training with higher quality players (i.e. exclusively training with the first team) or playing regular adult football at any level? Why?

GdS the golden question. I think @chelseayouth is onto something when he says that players get conditioned to play at a lower level. Bamford has played so much championship football that he became conditioned to that level and couldn’t progress. I’m certain the idea of Loftus-Cheek spending 3 seasons at Chelsea’s 19th player is not the way to go. He desperately needs a reality check and actual minutes. I think the same applies in Holland – hard to step up after that.

I think Chalobah had a decent mix at Napoli of tactical development, training with good players, and some minutes. Plus, the culture shock of a new country. Seems a nice guy but maybe not serious enough to actually make it. Sadly, he will probably drop further down the pecking order next season if a new signing comes in.

JT – what is the ideal development strategy for a promising 18-year-old at a club the stature of Chelsea? Loan or in-house development?

GdS – similar to before. So hard for a RLC to develop without minutes, and crucially, to be match fit to actually do well when a chance arises. I think the old short-term loan method was quite good. A big culture shock, usually brought in to play minutes immediately due to injuries, and you come back to parent club match fit and more experienced. I think it’s key to actually THROW PLAYERS INTO THE DEEP END. A random and totally unexpected start is risky but is the only way to see who has something below the surface and can step up when challenges. Rashford was apparently not even considered the best forward in Utd’s reserve team.

JT – which position is easiest for an Academy player to play at first team level? Why?

GdS – attacker, simply because there are sub minutes on offer. A young Aké-type won’t even get 10 mins at the end because it disrupts the defence. Playing wide or up front means you can run hard towards the end. If you’re clever enough to be able to keep the ball, draw fouls or be tall enough to help on set plays, then you could get decent minutes. Aké is a good example in other ways. Being left footed may harm him because he isn’t even an option for the Zouma-type minutes at the end because it requires Cahill to RCB, Azpilicueta to RWB etc. Changing a defence can be very disruptive. It is why it is often the least rotated unit in a starting XI.

JT – which position is hardest for an Academy player to play at first team level? Why?

GdS – as above. For any position, it’s tough being short. Sad but true. Too risky to bring on Musonda for Costa because of the massive downgrade in height when defending set plays. Equally, Jay Dasilva is wonderfully gifted, but is he going to compete with Zlatan on far post headers?

JT – as a coach, is there an aspect of the game you feel is undervalued by the wider public when it comes to coaching and developing young talent?

GdS – analysis helps. One very good way to gain “experience” without actually playing.

JT – what constitutes an opportunity for an Academy player? A few substitute appearances? Consecutive starts?

GdS – minutes in games that matter where the result is up for grabs (narrow lead). Even Chalobah coming on away to City for 5 mins. But that needs to eventually translate to starting meaningful matches too. Very hard to say. Bertrand counts. He played a lot under RDM in meaningful and smaller games, in 2 positions. Benitez also gave him games in the Europa. He passed every test. But then comes Mourinho who just sees the 16-year-old kid he took to America in his first summer. And when you see Azpilicueta doing so well at LB it’s hard to argue. But f**k, it’s tough to take.

JT – any closing thoughts about youth development?

GdS – I think the Europa league helps. Plenty of games, often starting, often playing away from home, something at stake but not too much.

The loan issue is huge. Kenedy goes to Watford and gets no games. We knew they play 352 so its him or Holebas. If he loses that battle, he gets 0 minutes. Very bad loan. We send Chalobah to Burnley and he barely has a kick, but then think loaning Bamford there is a good idea to the same manager. Learn!

Moses did great in his first season with 10 goals! Then loaned out constantly when he clearly had something to add. Martinez barely used Van Aanholt and Sinclair, yet we loan Di Santo there. Worked out okay later on, but it’s this type of thing that gets me.

Ultimately this is a complicated issues, with no good answers.

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